City contracts with Knox co-principals to boost salary

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SALISBURY — In the first arrangement of its kind, the city of Salisbury has contracted with the new co-principals of Knox Middle School to boost their salaries and have more influence over the future of the school.
Mayor Paul Woodson said the city is paying Dr. Michael Waiksnis and Dr. Latoya Dixon each $15,000 annually for four years. The principals, who were recruited from South Carolina to turn around the struggling middle school that had four principals from 2008 to 2013, are also contracting with Catawba College for $35,000 each per year.
They each earn $70,000 in salary from Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
Dixon and Waiksnis transformed two schools in the Rock Hill school district, doubling the number of students proficient in math, language arts, science and social studies. Waiksnis was named South Carolina’s middle school principal of the year.
Both principals worked for Dr. Lynn Moody in Rock Hill before she became superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
Contracting with the principals to improve Knox was less expensive than trying to take over operation of the school, Woodson said, which some local business leaders had suggested.
According to the contract with the city, Dixon and Waiksnis are independent contractors expected to do the following:
• Create and implement a school transformation plan at Knox
• Work collaboratively with the city during the transformation and report on progress as the city requests
• Work with other city schools as requested. (Overton Elementary and Salisbury High School are also in the city limits.)
• Engage the community in the school transformation process.
• Explore the possibility of presenting at a conference about school/city transformation with the city and Catawba College.
Contract renewal will be based on successful progress, and the contract runs from June 2014 to June 2018. The principals have received their first payment from the city.
Dixon and Waiksnis signed the document on June 2. Interim City Manager John Sofley signed it June 19.
Former City Manager Doug Paris was on the recruitment team that chose Dixon and Waiksnis, and Paris arranged to contract with them. But Paris never signed the city’s document before leaving his job suddenly on June 17 after a nearly five-hour closed session with City Council.
Woodson said City Council members knew about the contract and supported the idea, even though it was not discussed at a council meeting or voted on in public. Paris first approached Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell about the arrangement, and then Woodson went to the remaining three City Council members individually and received a consensus, Woodson said.
If anyone had opposed the idea, Woodson said, he would have brought up the issue during a public meeting.
Woodson said when he became mayor in 2011, parents, real estate agents and business leaders began talking to him about the need for city intervention at Knox and Overton.
“Companies were not able to recruit business people to live in the city,” Woodson said. “They would come to work here, but they would live at the lake or in Concord.”
Housing prices were falling, the populations of Salisbury and Rowan County were declining, and people were concerned about Salisbury High School losing its high academic ranking if Knox continued to struggle with low test scores and leadership problems, Woodson said.
“Folks were asking about the city running the schools,” he said.
City Council last February set a goal to help the schools, and Woodson and Paris began meeting with Moody.
“We had to try to get the kids’ test scores up,” Woodson said. “She had principals who had gotten test scores up and turned other schools around. These are proven people, these are turn-around people.”
Paying the principals $15,000 annually for four years — a total of $120,000 — is “extremely reasonable,” Woodson said, especially when compared to the cost of taking over a school.
Woodson said he expects Dixon and Waiksnis to present their Knox transformation plan at City Council’s annual retreat in February, as well as advise the city on improvements for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Catawba President Dr. Brien Lewis also served on the recruitment team for Knox and said he knew when he met Dixon and Waiksnis and read their credentials that he wanted them on faculty at the college.
They will be teaching classes and working with Catawba students on research projects, as well as helping write grants, Lewis said.
While Lewis said he doesn’t know if Catawba has ever contracted with other Rowan-Salisbury principals, it’s not unusual for the college to hire as visiting faculty people with special skills to work with students.
“I met with them and said if they do come to this community, we would love to be able to utilize their talents,” Lewis said. “It’s not often that you get folks with not just a doctorate, but Mike was principal of the year in South Carolina.”
Knox stands a few blocks away from Catawba, and the college is looking for opportunities for education majors to work with the middle school.
Better test scores and strong leadership at Knox are good for Catawba, Lewis said.
“Catawba wants to do everything it can to strengthen the local schools,” he said. “The stronger the local schools, the easier it is for us to recruit and retain and locate faculty here.”
Catawba’s partnerships with Dixon and Waiksnis also helps put education at the forefront of local dialogue, he said.
“Any way in which Catawba and other local education institutions can partner with and collaborate with Rowan-Salisbury Schools, that’s a positive for everybody,” Lewis said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.